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Scimitars and Sand Dunes - Rethinking the Middle East, Arabs and Islam

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 6, 2009 10:41pm | Post a Comment
With President Obama's recent address at the University of Cairo, there has been a veritable sandstorm of media discussion about the Middle East, the Arab world and the Islamic world; three concepts lazily interchanged in the American mainstream media (including the supposedly smarter public radio). Despite some overlap, the indiscriminate use of the terms, both out of ignorance and deliberately,  minimizes substantial heterogeneity and differences -- to the detriment of our understanding of reality, and as a result contributing to the undermining and hindering of attempts at peace in the region. While I did find the president's speech fairly nuanced, intelligent and inspirational, until substantial actions reflect those attractive words, they offer nothing more than hope.



"Neighbour to the Moon," the legendary Christian Lebanese singer, فيروز.

Today Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners remain some of the last people in the west for whom racism is not only extremely common but also widely accepted, even governmentally endorsed. Merely advocating equality and human rights for Arabs and Muslims is often met with charges of racism and embracing hatred, probably the only people likely to ellicit that response besides Germans. Given this reality, centuries of negative stereotypes and repeated military and political actions that reflect undeniable double standards, it's no wonder that many view the frequent proclamations that "Islam is a beautiful religion" and hands extended in friendship with widespread suspicion at best.



The Arab world
Arabs trace their ancestry back to the Semitic tribes of the Arabian peninsula and the Syrian desert. Like many immigrant populations, Arabs are often viewed as so indelibly tied to their ancestral homeland that they are seen as perpetual foreigners; their allegiances are often questioned entirely on the basis of their ancestry. Today, not surprsingly, many Arabs make their homes around the world beyond the Middle East. The widespread hostility they are treated with is obvious not only in hate crimes, but larger political action, after both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Anthrax scare prompted calls to military response against someone, anyone in the middle east. Let's just drop some bombs over there and be done with it.


The "Arabian Elvis"... عبدالحليم إسماعيل شبانة

Arab in the non-genetic sense
Furthering the confusion is the use of Arab to describe anyone who speaks Arabic (similar to the way Amish call non-Amish Americans "English" or American-based Spanish Language TV stations are referred to as "Mexican."). Although many Berbers, Lebanese and Palestinians have some Arabic ancestry, it makes up a small portion of their genetics, even though they often self-identify as Arabs based on culture and language.

Syrian-born, half-Lebanese, Druze musical genius فريد الأطرش

Arab n. Bad guys in the Middle East
Just as the definition of the Middle East seems to expand in an effort to encompass the Muslim world, the term Arab grows too, as with the Darfur War, which is usually characterized as a genocide perpetrated by Arabs, despite the fact that the attackers are themselves black Africans. Arab is, therefore, understood to mean "bad guy" and they're one of the few people in the world who're never allowed to be portrayed as victims. Even when occupied, oppressed and living as second class citizens under apartheid, there's an understanding that they had it coming, being Arabs. Another example is the media and American culture's disproportionate attention toward Buddhist Tibet and almost complete silence regarding its neighbor to the north, mostly Muslim East Turkestan, despite their parallel situations.


The Islamic world

The Islamic World is usually mischaracterized as being roughly synonymous with the Middle East. Although most Arabs practice Islam, there are large numbers of Christians and Druze. But, in the minds of most, Arabs and Muslims are synonyms. When I caught a local news story about the secular-Marxist Palestinian organization, the PFLP (founded by an atheist from a Christian background), the newscaster referred to them as "radical Islamists," apparently incapable of thinking that the motivation for self governance could be motivated by anything other than fanatical devotion to God.


Islam outside the Middle East
Even more notably, the countries with the largest populations of Muslims are almost all located outside the traditional middle east. In descending order of population size they are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Morocco and Algeria... none of which are in the Arabian peninsula. Of the biggest Islamic populations, only Egypt and Algeria are Arabic to a substantial degree.



The Middle East
The Middle East itself is a hazily defined region in Asia with no universally-agreed upon boundaries but always including Arabia, Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia... but sometimes including parts of Eastern Europe, Anatolia, North Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. It seems to grow the more people become aware of the dominance of Islam outside of regions traditionally thought of as the Middle East. Nonetheless, it's often discussed like it's its own continent, with static borders and completely exclusive from the rest of Asia. Yes, Jesus and Mohammed were Asian in that sense. Put that in your shisha and smoke it.



The Middle East exists in the collective Western consciousness as a vast, homogenous region full of harems full of belly dancers presided over by oil barons, insane suicide bombers, sneaky (but inept) sheiks and genies. Everyone (except Israelis) is both Arabic and Muslim. Of course, in reality, Middle Easterners practice just as many faiths as anyone else. Most Assyrians, Bilen, Georgians, Armenians and a large percentage of Lebanese are, in fact, Christian. (Yes, I know few people consider Georgia and Armenia to be in the Middle East, but there are large numbers of Armenians and Geogians living in countries that are.)

Non-Muslim/non-Jewish Middle Easterners


                    Druze                                                    Zoroastrians Samaritans

It's also worth pointing out that not only did Christianity, Islam and Judaism come out of the Middle East, so did Druze, Zoroastrianism, Bahá'í, Samaritanism, Yazdânism and Sikhism (if your personal definition of the Middle East includes Punjab).

Non-Arabic/non-Jewish Indigenous Middle Easterners


       Afar woman                        Assyrian boy                                                   Azeri boys


                                        Beja                                                         Chaoui women              Hederab woman



                                 Berber Woman                                               Nara woman                 Nubian woman


    Pamiri woman                     Pashtun mother and child                                        Persian girls



                Rashaida couple                                   Saho Woman                               Talysh girls


   Tigre Woman                             Tigrinya                                                               Tuareg homies


         Turkish women                                               Turkmen musicians

What's even less known is that there are large numbers of non-Arabic/non-Jewish people indigenous to the Middle East, each with their own traditions, music and culture including both the examples above and non-pictured people like the Abkhaz, Bakhtiaris, Baloch, Bilen, Danagla, Dom, Gilakis, Haratin, Hausa, Ja'Alin, Kabyle, Kurds, Laks, Lurs, Mazandaranis, Mozabites, Shaigiya, Teoubou and Zazas (to name a few).

Young Afghans

Hollywood and the media's perpetuation of the faceless Middle East
With most of our impressions of the middle east coming from the media and Hollywood, it's not surprising how ignorant most westerners are about the Middle East. When Afghans (neither Arabic nor Middle Eastern by standard definitions) laughed at the idea of an Arabs like Osama bin Laden effortlessly blending into their population unnoticed, most American scratched their heads in confusion. How can they tell themselves apart? Of course, as part of the campaign to make our military opponents faceless, images of Afghans are extremely rare in the media. If we assume that all Middle Easterners are the same, we can just punish whichever ones we can get at most easily instead of pursuing the actual perps. When the World Trade Center came down due to the Afghan Taliban and al qaeda, the natural response was to shock and awe the Iraqi people, despite the fact that there were no Iraqis involved. It's the same kind of thinking that led people to deaths of Balbir Singh Sodhi, Adel Karas (neither of whom were even Muslims) and other brown skinned people in the days following the attack on 9/11.

Palestinian Children

Sometimes it's even more overtly politically motivated, as with arguments that suggest that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people and that the word didn't even appear until the 1948 invasion. This despite the fact that the Greeks wrote of Palaistinê (Παλαιστίνη) several millenia ago... and demands for an independent Palestine issued by the Syrian-Palestinian congress in 1921. All of this negative stereotyping, even when conciously recognized and rejected, can end up poisoning our subconscious. Test yourself here to test your own biases toward Arabs, Muslims and other people. And if you want to watch some Hollywood depictions of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims, check out any of the following:

The Sheik (1921), A Son of the Sahara (1924), A Song of Love (1923), The Son of the Sheik (1926), A Café in Cairo (1924), The Desert Bride (1928), The Wind and the Lion (1975), Arab Conspiracy (1976),  Black Sunday (1977), Raid on Entebbe (1977), Midnight Express (1978), The Black Stallion (1979), Back to the Future (1985), Iron Eagle (1986), Death Before Dishonor (1987), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), Dadah is Death (1988), Navy SEALs (1990), Not Without My Daughter (1990), The Delta Force (1991), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), Return to Paradise (1998), Rules of Engagement (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001).

 

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Happy نوروز (Nowruz)

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 20, 2009 08:26am | Post a Comment
HAPPY NEW YEAR!


Today, for most observers (but tomorrow for others), is Persian New Year, variously and roughly anglicized as Navrus (Tajikistan), Nawroz (Afghanistan), Nevruz Day (Albania), Nooruz (Iran), Nov Ruz Bairam (Kyrgyzstan), Nauryz Meyrami (Kazakhstan) and Novruz Bayram (Azerbaijan). As with the Lunar New Year, which is often referred to in the media as the "Chinese New Year" (unintentionally marginalizing Koreans, Taiwanese and Vietnamese, who also celebrate the Lunar New Year), Nowroz is often referred to as the Iranian or Persian New Year. In President Obama's Nowruz address, he didn't make that mistake, although he did turn it into a fairly contrived address to the Islamic Republic.


Maz Jorbani on Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

IRAN VS PERSIA

Iran, though related to Persia, is not the same thing. The word Iran comes from Aryānām, literally, "Land of the Aryans." Other Aryan people (who also celebrate Nowruz) include Baloch, Kurds, Lurs, Ossettians, Pashtuns and Zazas. Thus, Nowruz is widely celebrated (in addition to the places already named) in Balochistan, Bosnia, the Caucasus, the Crimea, Iraq, Kashmir, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Macedonia, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The term "Iranian," in contrast to "Persian," includes all people descended from Iran who are just as fully Iranian (at least on paper, though not necessarily in practice) such as Arabs, Armenians, Georgians, Jews and Kazakhs, who are probably less likely to celebrate Nowruz. Though most of Nowruz's celebrants practice Islam, its origins go back much further and the day is especially important to Zoroastrians, as well as Alawites, Alevis, Bahá'í, Ismailis, and other Central Asian people of various faiths. 

   


TEHRANGELES IN FILM, TV AND REALITY

Los Angeles is home to the largest group of Iranians outside of Iran, who make up large percentages of the populace of Woodland Hills and Encino and especially Tehrangeles (centered on Westwood Blvd between Pico and UCLA) and Beverly Hills. In fact, Beverly Hills High, with a 40% Persian student body, inspired the creators of 90210 to create a (lone) Persian character on the show, Navid Shirazi (played by 28-year-old Germanic/Latino actor Michael Mateus Steger). Before that, Clueless was probably the first film to acknowledge the presence of a large Persian populace on the west side. The film alluded to the "Persian mafia" who, it's explained one "can't hang with... unless you own a BMW or Mercedes Benz and a cellular phone," which at the time of its making in 1995, was much less common. Less insightful, but no less hilarious, was 2005's Crash, which made laughable attempts to address inter-ethnic relationships in an unrecognizable Los Angeles, with uninentionally side-splitting results.



NOWRUZ 2009/1388


I'm sure there's lots of stuff going on around Los Angeles, like this party, or you could go to a Persian restaurant. The best Nowruz film is Jafar Panahi's debut, the Abbas Kiarostami-penned The White Balloon (بادکنک سفيد), which long ago passed through Amoeba's doors on VCD. It's one of the best. Happy new year.